- - Friday, September 9, 2011

A DEATH IN SUMMER
By Benjamin Black
Henry Holt, $25, 320 pages

MISTERIOSO
By Arne Dahl
Pantheon, $25.95, 352 pages

It is rare that murder most foul is overwhelmed by literary grace, yet that is true of Benjamin Black’s latest mystery. Even violent death can assume a lyrical tone when it is the work of an author for whom mysteries seem to have become a hobby since he claimed a major literary award under another name.

Writing as John Banville, Mr. Black won the Booker Prize for “The Sea.” He is now turning out a mystery series set in psychological darkness and the steamy rain of 1950s Dublin. His plotting is as quirky as his aptly named protagonist, the psychologist Dr. Quirke.

Quirke is a weary man who struggles in a gloomy personal world of alcoholism and failed romances, in between aiding Detective Inspector Hackett with unsavory investigations. And this one ranges from unsavory to sordid, beginning with the violent death of Richard Jewell, a newspaper magnate otherwise known as “Diamond Dick” who has apparently blown his head off with a shotgun.

The question is whether this is a case of murder, and there certainly appear to be a substantial cast of suspects who would have been happy to kill Jewell. Characteristically, Mr. Black softens his description of the setting of the bloody death with an evocative rural passage in which he notes, “It added to the shock of the event that it had taken place on a drowsy Sunday afternoon in summer while the beeches along the drive sweltered in the sun and the mingled smell of hay and horses lay heavy on the summer air.”

The author’s skill in creating atmosphere is most effective in a chilling encounter between Quirke and the 8-year-old Giselle, the demon-haunted child of the dead man. Nothing is said that is not trivial, yet much is conveyed that he does not comprehend until too late. Asked what games she plays with her friends, she gives him a look that is “a brief flash of irony and amusement” and says, “Oh the usual. You know.” Quirke “felt himself mocked,” as indeed he has been.

Quirke has an affair with Francoise, the coolly elegant wife of Jewell, which turns out to be more of a bitter irony than most of his involvement with women. Even with his daughter Phoebe, Quirke, has a tangled, emotionally tormented relationship, but Francoise is far more than he can cope with, especially when he becomes aware of what she is and what she has done.

There is a quintessentially Irish darkness to the plot, but it is Mr. Black’s writing that carries the book, with its interspersing passages of introspection and delicacy. On the basic side of crime and punishment, Detective Inspector Hackett is jovially and cynically competent as he deals with a situation in which he must make a devil’s deal involving Jewell’s killer.

Quirke is clearly going to be with us for a while - at least as long as Mr. Black puts his prodigious imagination and writing flair to work on the gloomy crime world of Dublin. Let’s look forward to it.

The Scandinavian crime wave rolls on, and readers may begin to miss Henning Mankell as they cope with mysteries noted for their complicated style rather than their vivid characterization. In the case of Arno Dahl’s “Misterioso,” it marks the debut of detective Paul Hjelm, who leaps from a hostage situation at a bank in the suburbs of Stockholm to becoming a member of an exclusive team on a national manhunt.

Their mission is to track down a killer who is wiping out high-profile business leaders by putting two bullets in their heads. It’s what he does afterward that makes his behavior intriguing, because he painstakingly removes the bullets from walls to the music of Thelonious Monk’s jazz recording “Misterioso.”

The secret police team follow leads in directions ranging from the Russian mafia to the clandestine world of the very wealthy as they slowly zero in on the why as well as the how of the killings. Mr. Dahl gets off to a good start with an intriguing description of uncannily accurate dart-throwing and a tense evocation of a hostage drama. But the story slows to a crawl, and its style is humorless and tendentious.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.